As Sergio de Mello was bleeding in the rubble of Baghdad’s Canal hotel, there was a rescuer digging desperately to get him out. William von Zehle was a retired firefighter, and he did his best to dig de Mello out with his bare hands and used a woman’s purse to hold the rubble. He was able to rescue Gil Loescher, trapped near de Mello, but Sergio Vieira de Mello, UN Special Representative to Iraq, died in the wreckage. That was eight years ago.

Von Zehle spent three hours in his rescue attempt, talking to de Mello the whole time. He didn’t give up until he discovered that de Mello was dead. And the next day, he wrote down everything they spoke about. That’s how we know what de Mello was thinking about as his blood flooded the concrete around him. He said “Don’t let them pull the UN out of Iraq.”

Sergio de Mello was a hero, who cared passionately about the lives of people in Iraq. William von Zehle was a hero, too. He rescued Gil Loescher using a purse and a makeshift rope constructed from hotel drapes.

It’s time for the rest of us to live up to that legacy. We’re facing down a planet of unprecedented challenges. Climate change and the impact it is going to have on pretty much everything: food instability, natural disasters, conflict, poverty. Economic crisis with no end in sight. The rise of MDR TB and other antibiotic resistant bacteria.

We can’t leave caring to the aid workers any more. If we’re going to maintain any kind of quality of life for the human race, we all need to take responsibility for making things better. This task is too big for politicians or professionals alone; we need a critical mass of caring, committed human beings looking for ways to make the world better. It’s time for everyone to be a humanitarian.

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